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Importing E. coli - Commentary from the Food Safety Network

26.sep.06, Douglas Powell, Justin Kastner and Ben Chapman, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

Canadians are rightly wondering today whether it is safe to eat any fresh spinach following the E. coli O157:H7 illness of an Ontario woman linked to a large outbreak in the U.S.
The answer is, maybe.

26.sep.06, Douglas Powell, Justin Kastner and Ben Chapman, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
Canadians are rightly wondering today whether it is safe to eat any fresh spinach following the E. coli O157:H7 illness of an Ontario woman linked to a large outbreak in the U.S.
The answer is, maybe.
The search for the source of contamination that has sickened 175 in 25 states as well as the Canadian who purchased the spinach in Canada, has zeroed in on nine farms in three California counties that supply fresh spinach to a processor -- or bagger -- called Natural Selections Foods.
So, Canadian consumer, if you know that the fresh spinach you are contemplating for lunch did not come from this area under one of some 30 brand names, including Dole, that Natural Selections bags for, then dig in.
But how do you really know? For example, the loose spinach or spring mix at a salad bar may have come from a bag, maybe from California. If you order a salad at a restaurant, can you be sure of its origins? While there have been five recalls of product that came from the Natural Selections plant, spinach remains in circulation in Canada, with one Quebec company proclaiming its bagged spinach free of any risk.
This might be reassuring except all foods carry risks.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration advised Americans not to eat any fresh, bagged spinach on Sept. 14, 2006, and later expanded that recommendation to all fresh spinach. About 24 hours later, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency advised Canadians not to eat fresh spinach imported from the U.S. The stricken Canadian probably consumed the spinach in mid-August, well before the advisory but, would a stronger response from CFIA have led to fewer illnesses that will potentially develop over the next few weeks.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are a significant source of foodborne illness, and with an estimated 11 to 13 million foodborne illnesses in Canada each and every year that's just too much.
Because they are not cooked, anything that comes into contact with fresh fruits and vegetables is a possible source of contamination. Is the water used for irrigation or rinsing the spinach clean or is it loaded with pathogens? Do the workers who collect the produce follow strict hygienic practices such as thorough handwashing? What happens to that head of lettuce once it gets on to the sorting line, and then gets chopped up? The possibilities for contamination are seemingly endless.
Even more challenging is that many of these problems must be controlled on the farm. There are situations where the most ardent washing of produce by consumers will accomplish ... nothing; in some cases, the dangerous bugs can actually reside within the fresh produce.
After 20 outbreaks of dangerous E. coli on fresh lettuce and spinach dating back to 1995 and numerous warnings from FDA, the fresh lettuce and spinach industry -- and that means every individual grower -- needs to religiously embrace food safety and take charge of the industry's destiny.
Meanwhile, importing countries have decisions to make. Now that the outbreak's effects have extended beyond U.S. borders: what ought Canada--and, for that matter, other importing countries such as, Mexico, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Iceland -- do?
Article 5.7 of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Agreement (the SPS Agreement) explicitly allows countries to adopt import restrictions "on the basis of pertinent information." The sick people, the widespread occurrence of the disease, and the severity of the outbreak constitutes pertinent information.
Canada should have banned the importation of fresh spinach on Sept. 14, 2006 -- not just an advisory the next day -- and that ban should be kept in place until producers can demonstrate their product is safe.
It's been done before: Canada and the U.S. both banned the importation of Mexican cantaloupes because of repeated outbreaks of Salmonella.
Instead of heeding the banal -- and in this case, entirely ineffective -- advice to
thoroughly wash all produce, consumers should be asking questions, like what do restaurants and grocery stores demand of their suppliers? And what do growers of fresh lettuce or spinach do to control dangerous microorganisms like E. coli O157:H7?